Mark Story: Ranking UK players' importance to tournament run

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 20, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — In an exhortation to the Hickory Huskers, Coach Norman Dale laid out the ethos that — in the movie Hoosiers — would produce a champion.

"Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit — team, team, team — no one more important than the other."

In the real world, a championship team needs all parts pulling in the same direction — but some roles are more vital to success than others.

When the Kentucky Wildcats open the 2014 NCAA Tournament on Friday night against Kansas State, the Cats will be trying to flip the narrative of a disappointing regular season with a redemptive tournament run.

In reverse order of the (OK, my) expected import of their role, here is what each Kentucky player needs to produce if the Midwest Region No. 8 seed Wildcats are to roar this March.

16 (tie). EJ Floreal, Tod Lanter, Brian Long, Sam Malone. Of Kentucky's four walk-ons, only Floreal (three) has played in more than one game this season and he is the only one who has scored (a basket against Robert Morris in November). Cheering hard — and doing their part to keep the team grade-point average up — would seem the most the walk-ons will be asked to contribute this March.

12. Derek Willis. The Bullitt East product has scored one field goal in a game since Nov. 17. I believe Willis has the ability to be a quality player on a Kentucky team that makes a deep March run — but that chance is not going to come this year.

11. Jon Hood. If, in the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari has to call on the fifth-year senior from Madisonville to produce energy as he had to do when Hood gave the Cats 13 "hustle minutes" in a road win at Mississippi State Feb. 8, it would not be a good sign.

10. Marcus Lee. The bouncy Californian had 17 points against UNC Asheville in UK's season opener — and has 28 the rest of the season. Still, if NCAA Tournament games are called tight by the officials, there is a scenario where foul trouble could give Lee a chance to provide Kentucky frontcourt minutes.

9. Dominique Hawkins. From the Robert Morris game (Nov. 17) through UK's SEC opener in Rupp Arena against Mississippi State (Jan. 8), the former Madison Central star played double-figure minutes in 10 of 11 games. Since then, he's played only 48 minutes the rest of the season. Still, if UK finds itself getting torched by dribble penetration, Hawkins could be the UK defender best suited to stopping that.

8. Jarrod Polson. Though he has not shot well this season (11-for-34), the senior guard could provide veteran moxie to the Kentucky backcourt if the Cats' freshman guards struggle under tournament pressure.

7. Alex Poythress. If UK gets the Poythress who averaged 10.6 points in January — and not the Poythress who has averaged 4.2 in the 13 games since — it could give the Cats a positive X-Factor for the tournament run.

6. Dakari Johnson. The true freshman center has come on late (hit 16 of his last 27 field-goal tries) and the Cats benefit from both Johnson's emotion and his basketball smarts.

5. Aaron Harrison. UK needs the locked-in shooting guard of the SEC tourney (18-for-36 field goals, 9-for-20 treys) and not the two man with errant aim who went 11-for-43 from the field in the final four regular-season games.

4. James Young. More efficient scoring from Young, who has gotten up 91 shots in UK's eight most recent games but has made only 34, would be a boon to the Cats.

3. Willie Cauley-Stein. For all the talk about how UK's defensive length could be the Cats' Big Dance difference-maker, Kentucky really has only one shot-blocker — the 7-foot Cauley-Stein. When he plays like he did against Florida in the SEC championship game (10 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks, two steals) UK goes to another level.

2. Julius Randle. Randle enters the NCAA Tournament having made 30 of his last 78 field-goal attempts. Whether or not he regains his offensive mojo could go a long way in determining how long UK plays.

1. Andrew Harrison. Tournament basketball often comes down to point guard play. The Andrew Harrison at the SEC Tournament provided winning direction, with 19 assists to nine turnovers and three straight double-figure scoring games. Conversely, in the last six games of the regular season, Harrison shot 16-for-57 and had a 23-14 assist/turnover ratio.

To have a chance of producing some magic in March, UK needs the league-tourney version of Andrew Harrison.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: story@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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